How to Protect PII

Cybersecurity

​​Illustration by Tyler Stone​​​

How to Protect PII
 

If you are an employee, a student, a patient, or a client, your personally identifiable information (PII) is out there—and prime for hacking. In October, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) added protecting the privacy of PII to its list of high-risk issues affecting organizations across the country. All organizations, from large federal agencies to universities, hospitals, and small businesses, store PII about their employees, clients, members, or contractors. And, as seen in recent large-scale cyberattacks, PII is a hot commodity for malicious attackers. 

According to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, PII is any information that can be used alone or with other sources to uniquely identify, contact, or locate an individual. However, the definition of PII can depend on the context in which the information is used, according to Angel Hueca, information systems security officer with IT consulting company VariQ. For example, a name by itself is innocuous, but that name combined with a personal e-mail address, a Social Security number, or an online screenname or alias could give bad actors all they need to wreak havoc on a person or company.

And it appears that no one is immune to the risk of compromised PII. According to research by the GAO, 87 percent of Americans can be uniquely identified using only three common types of information: gender, date of birth, and ZIP code. 

If PII is leaked, the consequences for both affected individuals and organizations can be damaging, says Hueca. Companies may face large fines or legal action if the PII they hold is breached, especially if the organization didn’t comply with outlined customer agreements or federal regulations, or if the breach violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. A breach can also be reputation-damaging and cost the company employees and clients, Hueca notes. 

Hueca stresses the importance of educating all employees, regardless of whether they have access to the company’s PII, about cybersecurity awareness and online behavior. Even using a personal e-mail at work or posting an image of their workspace on their social media account could lead to the leak of PII—there may be confidential information inadvertently documented in the photo, Hueca points out.

A more common occurrence is someone with access to an organization’s PII database inadvertently forwarding an e-mail with sensitive information, such as a client’s case number or an employee’s personal contact information. For example, in 2014, a Goldman Sachs contractor accidentally sent an e-mail with confidential brokerage account information to a Google e-mail address instead of to the contractor’s personal e-mail. Goldman Sachs went to the New York State Supreme Court to ask Google to block the recipient from accessing the e-mail to prevent a “needless and massive” data breach. The court didn’t rule on the case, because Google voluntarily blocked access to the e-mail.

Hueca says that segregating duties and tightly controlling who has access to certain information can help with this issue. Often, HR or administrative employees may need access to some PII, but not all of it—isolating potentially sensitive information can prevent harmful leaks. 

How an organization’s network is set up can help prevent the accidental or malicious transfer of PII. Hueca suggests keeping sensitive information segregated from the rest of the network environment—if there is a breach, hackers will have to break through a second firewall to access the information. Organizations should also take advantage of standard content tracking software to spot suspicious activity.

“Fortunately, many organizations have something called content filtering, which are tools that are able to filter information as it comes in and out of the organization,” Hueca explains. “If there’s something that looks like a Social Security number, with nine digits, being sent out, the tool will alert an administrator that this activity is happening, which could be accidental or malicious.” 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) handbook for safeguarding PII says only secure, organization-issued electronic devices should be used to view sensitive information. If an employee must access PII on a portable device, such as a laptop, USB, or external hard drive, the data should be encrypted. And if PII must be e-mailed within the office, DHS strongly recommends password-protecting the data within the e-mail. 

Lastly, Hueca recommends that all companies have an incident response plan in place specifically for the malicious theft of PII. 

“This is something that most organizations don’t think about, having an incident response plan specifically for a PII breach,” Hueca says. “What happens if you do get breached? What are the steps? Talk about what-ifs. Once you have a notification in place, you get alerted, what do you do? Try to segregate it from other sensitive data and figure out what happened.”